Homer's Travels: July 2009

Friday, July 31, 2009

No Lions? Oh Well, There Were Tigers And Bears.

How many of you remember Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom? When I was a kid I was amazed as Jim went where Marlin feared to tread (Marlin: "While I sit hear drinking this margarita, Jim will try to determine the sex of the rabid Badger."). Well, I relived some of that on Thursday when the Wife and I went to Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo.

The Henry Doorly Zoo is one of the best zoos in the country. It's right up there with the San Diego Zoo in my opinion. We picked a great time to go. The prior weekend, Mutual of Omaha celebrated it's 100th anniversary by opening up the zoo and several other local museums and attractions for free. This meant a rather light crowd on Thursday. The zoo employees also had time to recover from the record 40,000 zoo attendees on Saturday alone.

We walked through the 130 acre zoo starting with the iconic Desert Dome. Under the dome, as we walked through the Kingdom of the Night exhibit, we waded through the herds of North American Wailing Rugrats including the one giving the Fart-Noise-By-Blowing-Into-His-Hands call of the wild. It was delightful.

Our walk took us through the Orangutan Forest, Cat Complex, Bear Canyon (they fed the Polar Bear while we were there), and the Aviary before we stopped for lunch. After lunch came the Elephants, Rhinos, and the ride on the new Skifari ski lift ride over the park.

The skifari was pretty cool and lasted longer than we expected. We were warned about our shoes - apparently one rider lost a shoe over the cheetah pen and they chewed on it all day long. It was fun looking at the animals from above and the faces of people on the ride who probably, by the look of distress on their faces, shouldn't have been on the ride at all. We wondered what the animals must have thought seeing these flying people overhead. One poor ostrich constantly protected her egg from the ski lift chairs. She was probably exhausted by the end of the day.

The skifari was followed by the Giraffe complex, the Zebras, and a really cool Butterfly and Insect pavilion. This was the Wife's favorite. You walked through a simulated jungle full of butterflies and hummingbirds. It was one of my favorite as well.

We ended our four hour tour of the zoo with the Scott Aquarium (full of fish, not Scotts. I was a little disappointed) and the Rain Forest/Jungle. Both of these were well done.

We both enjoyed the visit to the Zoo. Temps were perfect. Crowds were manageable. Animals were cool. I always have mixed feeling with zoos. I like looking at the animals but I can't help thinking they would live happier lives out in the wild. Hopefully, with the planned expansion once the old stadium is torn down, the animals will get more room to roam free. Pictures of the day can be found here.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

High School Counselors - Seers Of The Future?

Yesterday afternoon I went through some old dusty boxes of memories. At times I can be a sentimental pack rat. Every few years I pull stuff out and get all misty eyed and reminisce about what was and often what could have been.

In one box of random old things I found a copy of my Informe de OrientaciĆ³n Vocacional (Vocational Guidance Report) from my high school counselor. I usually poo-poo most aptitude tests and other put-you-in-a-box tests but I have to say, with twenty-eight years of hindsight, that the counselor and her tests were spot on. A few excerpts:
Qualitative Results: "Generally high aptitude in all areas although mechanical is only average {That explains why the water hit the bathroom ceiling when I tried to fix the faucet}. Good reasoning ability using language, numbers, and other abstract concepts." {Then why can't I win an argument with the Wife?}
Interests: "Expressed greatest interest in physical sciences. Below average in all other fields." {Yep, that's about right.}
Values: "(Above average) Greatest emphasis placed on the theoretical (Knowledge for its own sake), followed by economical (practicality & usefulness). Average on political (management & executive). Below average in esthetic, social, religious." {Yep. The real world comes second and I hate the management while I sit in my ugly apartment playing video games using God's name in vain. Well, not anymore now that I met the Wife.}
Personality Traits: "Indications of good family relations but some problems in social adjustment (may be too much of a loner) {Sounds like a serial killer, don't it?}, some indications of emotionality (too subjective a response to situations, feelings of anger or unhappiness too easily stimulated) {WHAT!!! Are you crazy!?! That really bums me out.}, may be too much of a social conformer. Probably subject to periods of depression {especially around birthdays}. Indications of leadership ability {Sure, the one thing she got wrong}.
Professional Advice: "Aptitudes, interests, and values indicate scientific career, probably more in research where there is more variety in the projects and problems under study. Also [Homer-Dog] would probably work better on a research team where his working with people who share his interests & abilities but would also be working alone at some time. Computer engineering would be a good choice." {Well that explains why I didn't like my old job. I was in the wrong line of work. I worked on a total of three projects in my 21 years of work and there was very little science or research involved. I wish I'd read this report a little more carefully before interviewing.
As I read this report I'm still amazed how close she got it. She had one good crystal ball.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Gritty Underbelly Of Omaha

Tuesday, my Mom, the Wife, and I took the last of the four River City Tours of Omaha put on by the Durham museum. This tour was titled "the Gritty City" and covered the seedier side of Omaha history.

The bus tour took us around the downtown area, an area I have walked many times, while the guide told us about the saloons, brothels, and mobsters that livened up the history of this once frontier city. Things look differently once you learn the story behind the old buildings. Apparently a lot of the hotels, saloons, and gambling joints had tunnels connecting them to nearby brothels. Now a tunnel tour ... that's something I would like to see. Unfortunately, I doubt any of the tunnels still exist today.

The tour was pretty good but is was shorter than the other tours by almost forty-five minutes. If I were them, I would merge the Trans-Mississippi parts of the tour we took the "J" on with the Gritty City Tour. I would then flesh out the North Omaha/Jazz tour with more north Omaha history and African-American history. When they had talked about the African-Americans in Omaha, about 10 minutes of the two hour tour, not one peep about Malcolm X being born here and forced out of town with his family. If you believed the tour the African-American experience in Omaha was a little descrimination and a lot of good Jazz. Of course, if I ruled the world, everything would be perfect.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Book: Colin Thubron's "Shadow of the Silk Road"

Our last vacation out of the country, Peru, waked the traveler in me. Unfortunately in the three years since that vacation we have been international-vacation-less. As a way to feed my need I have started reading my issues of National Geographic practically cover to cover. I have also added travelogues to my non-fiction repertoire. My latest adventure, even if it was only in my mind's eye, was Colin Thubron's "Shadow of the Silk Road".

"Shadow of the Silk Road" recounts Thubron's travels of the historic Silk Road. Specifically he traveled from Xian, China west through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran, ending in Antioch, Turkey. He began his journey in 2003, a year when we'd planned to tour China but were deterred by SARs. His journey was interrupted by repeated SARs checkpoints including one two week quarantine in western China.

Thubron traveled like the locals. Buses, trains, hitchhiking with passing trucks, even riding with the mail delivery land rover in one particularly remote area of China. Along the way he visits tombs, temples, mosques, and other sites off the beaten path including some that even the locals aren't familiar with. He survives with English, a little Mandarin Chinese, and Russian through most of his travels.

I liked his style. He is a very descriptive writer. I often wished he'd had a camera with him (he didn't) so that he could have shared some of the wonderful locations he traveled through. The first third of the book, the part through western China, I found most interesting. His travels took him through the land of the Uyghurs whose struggle with the Han Chinese has been in the news recently. His travels in China had an airy, bright feel to them despite the poverty of the area.

Once Thubron leaves China, his writing loses it's luster until, to me, it feels almost alien and dark in the Muslim areas of Afghanistan and Iran. I'm not sure it was the culture or my perception of the culture that darkened the narrative.

Thubron is an intrepid traveler. He made it through areas I would never dream to even approach and I was amazed when he stared down several officials looking for a bribe. It seems refusing to give a hand out results in them letting you go on your way. In one case he accidentally hands some money over with his papers. When the police officer pockets the money, Thubron demanded his money be return and it was. I wonder if that would work for me? I bet I would end up in some dark and dank prison somewhere.

There is no timeline of the trip in the book. This may be because the trip was done in two pieces a year apart (Afghanistan was too dangerous to travel through in 2003). Despite the interruption, the narrative is written like one contiguous trip, something that bothered me. I'm sure I am being picky, he is very up front about the interruption, but is feels like he cheated. Of course, in travelling, there really aren't any rules so it's not fare of me to say that he is cheating.

I enjoyed traveling with the author. I wish I were as adventuresome as he was appears to be. An interesting read and recommended.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Another Year Bites ... The Dust

I think it's been decades since I've been happy on my birthday. I usually grin and bear it as best I can, put on a happy face for friends and family, or do my best to just pretend it's just another day, but today just sucked in my head. The sad thing is all the gloom and doom that I'm feeling is all self-inflicted. I can't blame anyone but myself. When I worked, I was often on travel on my birthday and the work kept me distracted. The few times I had one at work I usually just sat in my cube and moped all day. I get in these 'get out of my way, leave me alone' moods that doesn't do me any good.

The one bright spot are the cards, e-mails, Facebook posts, and comments wishing me well. Thank you everyone for that.

And a big thank you to the Wife. I know I'm not easy to be around when I get in this mood which is why I've been avoiding you most of the day.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The "J" Cometh: Day 5 And 6

The "J"'s trip has been full of history. Omaha reaks of history. The last full day here was no different.

Day 5 (Saturday) we went on a north Omaha tour. The bus tour took us through north Omaha and Florence. The tour started with the location of the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition. The exposition sounds incredible with gleaming white building surrounding a lagoon with gondolas. It was very elaborate and profitable for the area during an economic downturn. Now only the slightest hint remains amongst the rundown homes of one of the poorest areas of the city. The tour ended on the Street of Dreams and a brief history of the vibrant Jazz scene along 24th street.

After the tour we perused the farmers market, walked through the Durham museum, and had lunch at the Upstream. We drove past the mural, to the pedestrian bridge. We watched a bride in full regalia getting her picture taken on the bridge amongst all the Ragbrai riders (Ragbrai started today). We watched a group of party boats tied together, music blaring, filled with drunk, booby baring, party animals, floating down the Missouri under the bridge. It was a perfect July day. "J" brought to good weather with her.

We drove past the Wife's schools before heading home. Later the "J" went to have dinner with Omaha friends while the Wife and I had a quiet evening.

Day 6, today, we went to mass at the cathedral. The Archbishop is retiring this week and his replacement will be Archbishop George Lucas (may the force be with you). We ended "J"'s stay with lunch at Louis M's Burger Lust. The "J" insisted on paying us back for all our hospitality by paying for our lunch ... and getting us four tickets to the Green Day concert at the Qwest Center ... and getting us four tickets for the after party. She is so totally awesomely cool. I'm sure my face was one of disbelief. Thank you "J"!!!

You've been gone for three hours and we already miss you. So does Homer.

The "J" Cometh: Day 3 And 4

I've been a little slow at posting about the "J"'s visit. Too busy I guess. Now that she's gone I have time to catch up.

Day 3 was a day for the "J" to visit other Omaha friends. She has so many friends here she should just move here. She'd wanted to experience a good thunderstorm while here and nature obliged with a short but quite thundery-lighteningy storm in the morning before she went visiting. The Wife and I spent the day buying and planting plants for our new garden. It will look great once the coral bells, purple parasols, peonies, two colors of cone flowers, and other perennials we bought get established.

Day 4 was filled with an obligatory "J" activity - we went on a roadtrip. This roadtrip took us to the small town of Red Cloud, NE, population 1,000+, childhood home of author Willa Cather. The Wife, before we met, used to take her students on a Saturday field trip to Red Cloud. One of the things she described that peaked my interest was an old Russian schoolhouse northwest of town. The schoolhouse was in some farmer's field reachable by unmaintained dirt roads. I thought it might be a great photographic opportunity.

After a three hour drive we arrived at the restored opera house that is now the headquarters of the Willa Cather Foundation. We paid for our guided city tour and we asked about the location of the Russian schoolhouse. To our dismay and my disappointment the schoolhouse had been struck by lightening a few years back and had burned to the ground. Poop. I had to settle for a picture the Wife took back in 1997. The Wife and I have searched online for information about this school and there is absolutely nothing. What a loss for history.

The guided town tour took us past historic buildings and we went into the childhood home of Willa Cather, a couple of churches she attended, and the train station. Willa Cather wrote three books about the immigrant struggle on the prairie and all the characters were modeled on Red Cloud residents.

We ate lunch at a local cafe that ended with me spilling my drink on myself. The waitress commented that I was not as bad as three unsupervised five year olds eating spaghetti. I was glad to hear that. After lunch we drove five miles south to the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. The prairie is 608 acres of virgin prairie never touched by the plow. The land, purchased by the Willa Cather Foundation and the Nature Conservancy, is being returned to it's pre-1900 conditions before farming and over grazing. Standing out there you could feel what it was like to be a new immigrant, looking out over the land, wondering how you would turn this land into your future. Many didn't. Some pictures of the town and buildings are here.

Day 5 will be more history. Can anyone ever have too much history?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The "J" Cometh: Day 2

Day 2 was a slow start followed by a trip to downtown Omaha. We first met one of the "J"s Omaha friends at M's Pub for lunch. We'd never eaten here before and the food was mighty tasty.

After lunch we wandered around the old market before heading to Heartland of America park to see the fountain. Unfortunately the fountain wasn't fountaining.

We dropped the "J" off at her friends work place (She will have dinner with them tonight) and the Wife and I returned home for a leisurely evening of television.

Day 3 the "J" will spend with another Omaha friend so the Wife and I will be going plant hunting so we can fill in the holes in our new backyard garden.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The "J" Cometh: Day 0 And 1

One of our bestest friends in the whole wide world, the "J", arrived Monday for a week long visit. Monday, Day 0, was occupied with catching up and boy, can the Wife and the "J" catch up. Of course I held my own at times.

Day 1, Tuesday, we left the state and went over the river to Iowa. After a lunch at the Duncan Diner, we visited the weirdly fascinating Squirrel Cage Jail (Our third time this year). The "J" was fascinated by it and enjoyed being locked up in solitary.

Next we went to the General Dodge House. Gen. Dodge, one of the youngest civil war generals, was instrumental in completing the intercontinental railroad and consulted on railroad projects in France, Mexico, Cuba, and Russia (The Trans-Siberian Railway). The place is pretty impressive and reeks of wealth.

The last stop of the day was the "Black Angel". The angel, carved by Daniel Chester French, the same guy who carved the statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, was based on a dream that Gen. Dodge's wife, Ruth Anne had. Supernatural events have been attributed to the statue. While it took us a while to find it, nothing supernatural happened to us.

Tomorrow, downtown Omaha and the Old market.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

One More Thing Checked Off The List

We've been to the roller derby three times. The first time everything was new (Roller Derby: ). The second time we had friends with us and we saw one of the candidates for Mayor of Omaha. Since I really never have seen a political candidate, even a losing one, live in person, it was another first for me (Mayoral Candidate: ). Our third roller derby outing also had a first.

First of all, the Omaha Roller Girls (O.R.G.) were winning, something we'd never experienced. They really whipped the No Coast Derby Girls from Lincoln. (100-something to 61). But that win was not my only first that night. Near the end of the bout, before the start of a jam, the head ref, Ellen DeGenerate, approached the O.R.G.'s jammer, Ima Firestarter (#5'3"), got down on one knee, and proposed there on the spot. I couldn't see from vantage point but I think a ring was exchanged. My first Public Lesbian Marriage Proposal. I'm guessing there will be a trip to Iowa in their future.

So, what's next on the list?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Happy Anniversary To ... US!!!

We've been pretty hit and miss when it comes to spending our wedding anniversary together.  The Wife is usually at some workshop or seminar working on her professional development.  This year she returns home on our anniversary (today) and we will celebrate by going to the roller derby (How else woulds you celebrate your 12th?).


The coming week should be fun too as the "J" is coming to visit.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Book: James P. Othmer's "The Futurist"

This is a hard book to pin down. Did I like it? Did I not like it? Not really sure. James P. Othmer has written a book full of cynicism and commentary. That book is "The Futurist".

Othmer's main character is a futurist named Yates. The book starts with Yates preparing to give a speech to a conference. After emptying the mini-bar and having a long heart-to-heart with a charming South African prostitute, he gets up on stage and denounces his profession. He outs futurists as totally ignorant about what the future holds, that the futurist goal was to make money by telling people want they wanted to hear, and that he was founding the Coalition of the Clueless.

Leaving the conference, Yates is convinced that his career is over. He is introduced by an acquaintance to representatives of a secretive organization that Yates mistakes for a government organization. Thinking he had no options, he accepts their lucrative and seemingly benign offer to work for them. To Yates' surprise, his career doesn't crash and burn, demand for his honest point of view skyrockets, and the benign offer of the secretive organization is nothing of the sort.

The organization is a capitalist organization who wants to use Yates to sell their ideas to investors and to maximize their profits. After deciding at the conference not to sell out any longer, Yates had stumbled into the ultimate sell out. When he tries to get out, they frame him for terrorism and blackmail him.

The rest of the book tells of Yates' attempt to redeem himself, hide from his deal with the devil, and self exploration. He rescues the South African prostitute, he runs to a tropical island, but in the end he returns to confront his bad decision.

Making a deal with the organization, he sells what remains of his soul for one last task, a task that nearly kills him.

The last chapter, a mere three pages, is a series of one liners about what happens, or maybe does not happen, to Yates afterwards. While a hasty ending often leaves me wanting, there wasn't anywhere else to go with the story and a quick, concise ending had the right feel and worked for me.

So, did I like it? Yes. No. Maybe. Probably yes, I guess. I think what I liked about it was the artistic, expert use of cynicism throughout the book. I can be a cynic at times and Yates is the epitome of cynicism.

I guess I liked it. Somewhat recommended.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Morning After

The fourth ended in the whistles, rumbles, bangs, and booms of our independence. From my deck the eastern horizon was lit up with myriad bombs bursting in air. The festivities seemed never ending, continuing well past the witching hour. I was lulled to sleep by the rumbles of fireworks exploding and Homer snoring.

But my sleep was short lived as the Wife's Emilie Dickinson adventure began early with a trip to the airport. The gloomy clouds that dominated the day before were gone, replaced with a morning of blue skies and misty haze, punctuated by the silence of celebration's ended.

We kissed our goodbyes and I returned to what now feels like an empty shell of a home. Two hours and I already miss her.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Happy Fourth Of July!

Happy independence day to everyone!

"Memorial Park Concert Fireworks"
by Bruce H.

Friday, July 03, 2009

2009 Vacation - Epilogue And Lessons Learned

Our 2009 vacation turned out to be a mixed bag of good, bad, ordinary, extraordinary, cheesy, and cool. The first half, except for our day at Little Bighorn, was dominated by drizzly, gray, rainy days that, at least to me, sucked some of the excitement out of being on the road. What saved the vacation for me was Arches and Moab, UT. Arriving at Moab marked the return of sun, warmth, and new places to visit. Moab, for me, saved the vacation though the stuff we did and saw in western Nebraska comes in a close second.

So, my favorite stop was Moab and my favorite activity was the jet boat ride on the Colorado River. The boat ride was comfortable, relaxing, full of incredible vistas, and calmed me down. By far the most relaxed and most content I felt on the vacation. The Chocolate Mousse Pie we had in Moab helped quite a bit too.

My biggest disappointment was Yellowstone. Not sure what it is about that place. I've been there twice and both times, good weather and bad, crowded and not so much, the park has left me empty. Despite the incredible volcanic features, gorgeous waterfalls, and the wildlife, it left me weary and wanting. I wonder what it is.

So, lessons learned, there are several.
  • Until I figure out what I'm doing wrong, stay away from Yellowstone.
  • Having a laptop with us helped. We were able to look up information about where we were/were going and it was nice to get directions. It was nice to upload pictures on the road to see if they'd come out.
  • Having said this, having a laptop doesn't mean you should Blog. I was a lot more tired at the end of the day than I expected I'd be and adding the burden of blogging kind of stressed me out. I would have rather sit with the Wife and talk about the day instead of what actually happened - The Wife watched TV while I slaved over the lasted post.
  • Peru, ruined me. This vacation, a substitute for a Thai/Cambodia vacation we'd wanted to go on, seemed so ... pedestrian, mundane, bland. Oh, there were many things I liked about it and I really did enjoy myself but the idea of exotic Thailand was lurking in the back of my thoughts. Don't get me wrong, the Corn Palace was fascinating but it's no Angkor Wat.
  • I like driving - not really a lesson learned as I already knew this, but this vacation reaffirmed it. Driving through the green, rolling, sand hills of Nebraska was a treat.
I'm sure there were more lessons learned and quite a few that I should have learned but was clueless.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

And The Geopicty Goes To ...

To all those who took the time to vote for my pictures in the Nebraska Geopicting contest, I would like to say Thank You for making me the second quarter contest WINNER!

I haven't been officially notified yet. The Wife went to vote and noticed that all my pictures had been removed from the voting page. When I investigated I found the contest winner link.

I think that this may be the first contest, not involving random drawings, I've ever one. The prize is $250 paid as either a gift card to a local camera store, a gift card to Cabellas (an outdoors store similar to REI), 250 lottery scratchers, or a digital picture frame. The four quarterly winners are then eligible for a drawing for a laptop (valued at $1,000) - a 1 in 4 chance ain't bad.

So Cool!!!

Backyard Renovations

Some of you may have heard that we were having some work done in the backyard. I mentioned it here a few days ago. The landscaper finally showed up two days late. Bad weather the week before had delayed the start of our project. Bad/unpredictable weather seems to be the norm here in Nebraska. Spices up life a bit.

The work we had done was along the back fence. As you can see in the before picture (Click on the pictures to see bigger versions), the yard was rather bland. We had two trees a a small garden area being held together by rotting railroad ties and a prayer (That's Mary standing in the garden). What is not so apparent from this picture is the slope of the yard. There is a 4 1/2 foot drop from the top of the garden's back wall and the bottom of the back fence. This makes mowing along the back fence a real chore and the Wife and the GodSon (who house sat for us while we were on vacation) can attest to it. After mowing it a couple times, the Wife passed the backyard mowing chore to me. It's a real bear. Or, should I say, it was.

Backyard Before
The landscapers came in and over four days ripped out sod on the slope between the garden area and the evergreen tree on the right. They hauled in dirt to built up and flatten out the slope. Shrubs and short trees were planted along the back and the area was graveled. The garden area was enlarged and the railroad ties were replaced with a block wall.

Backyard After
The after photo shows the results. It came out pretty good. The five trees along the fence in the center are Purple Smoke Bushes. Don't ask me what the rest are. The Wife picked out most of it and she has told me several times but plant names don't stick in my head. She did a good job picking stuff out. If you want to know what it all is, leave a comment and I will ask the Wife. I do know there is a lilac in there somewhere (I think it's behind the evergreen). The garden was left unplanted and will be filled in by the Wife once she returns from the Emily Dickinson Workshop she's heading to next week. I think I'll plant something in the little area around the evergreen.

I can't wait to see how the plantings mature. The trees will grow and block the little street noise we get from the road out back. We have a lot of color from the different foliage. I also can't wait to mow the backyard now. It will be much easier, especially on those hot 100+ summer days.

Our landscapers did an good job but there were some issues as there are with all contractors. He was terrible with being anyplace on time. He wasn't good at communicating. He and his crew would leave each day without saying a thing to us. It's like, "Are they gone?!?" He was supposed to stop by yesterday for the balance of his payment and he never showed. Didn't even call. I guess I can't complain since we owe him and not the other way around.